Friday, March 23, 2012

The disgrace of the 'real' media in Malaysia

Joseph de Maistre (or Alexis de Tocqueville, depending on what Google says) is said to have penned the infamous words: "The people get the government they deserve". In the context of Malaysia, this quote should perhaps be extended--the people get the government they deserve, and as a result of that the newspapers they deserve.

And in this case, it seems that for our apathy, we accordingly deserve newspapers which seem hell-bent on perpetuating our apathy.



In the last few weeks, the Internet media--notably, The Malaysian Insider and Freemalaysiatoday.com--have been going to town with the dual stories of the Lynas LAMP rare-earth plant located in Kuantan and the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal, in addition to a few more other choice stories, particularly the recently scrapped civil service pay rise and the listing of Felda Global Ventures (FGV).

But open your daily copy of The Star (Malaysia's top selling newspaper) and there seems to be an almost pathological aversion to covering the Lynas or NFC stories in any depth or in a serious manner befitting a national publication. In fact, the NFC seems to often be relegated to page 18, whilst any mention of Lynas appears to be restricted to official ministerial statements. If you are a concerned Malaysian (or shall we say, a "slightly give-a-damn" Malaysian) who has some vague measure of interest in the environment or your taxpayer dollars (and probably both since they are sort of related), these two stories would definitely resonate with you. So it is quite disappointing that a newspaper that is widely read by Malaysians, seems to have absolutely no interest in taking up the cause or cudgel of the above two topics, despite their significant public interest element.

In fact, if you were a concerned Malaysian and you wanted to know what was going on with these two stories, you'd have to read the online media and as far as Lynas is concerned, you'd actually have to read the online version of the New York Times, an American newspaper, to learn what is happening in the Malaysian backyard. There is something fundamentally wrong surely when a foreign newspaper is actually covering a locally relevant story with greater depth than its Malaysian counterparts. The NYT disclosed correspondence between Lynas and some of its local contractors highlighting safety concerns about the plant's construction, an issue which the local newspapers seem to have glossed over, despite its media value.

When the Star finally front-paged something that had a semblance of connection to the NFC issue, namely, the resignation of the Minister of Women, Family and Community, Dato Seri Shahrizat Jalil (her family was implicated in the NFC scandal), on the front page today, it was only after the New Straits Times ran the story on THEIR front page on Sunday.

If we were living in the United States or even the UK, the Star would have been seen as losing out on a huge scoop. It would be akin to the Guardian breaking a scandal ahead of the Times, the Daily Mail beating the Sun to the latest royal gossip. Editorial heads probably might have rolled. But here in Malaysia, safety first is the mantra for the Mainstream Media. It's actually OKAY not to be breaking major news first because major breaking news doesn't actually result in more newspapers being sold.

The result of this situation is something straight out of Star Trek--Malaysians, it seems, live in a daily parallel universe of sorts. On the one hand, there is the Malaysia that apparently only the mainstream media knows exists. In that Malaysia, the alleged use of 250 million ringgit in taxpayer dollars, meant as a soft loan for a national project, by a Minister's family to purchase high-end real-estate does not appear to be of significance. The fact that the government has failed to engage its citizens before agreeing to build a rare-earth processing plant (and where only 450 jobs are going to be generated, in exchange for a 12-year tax holiday) is no big deal. In the Malaysia that the mainstream media exists in, apparently there is no massive public debt either, nor is there anything wrong with Malaysia. It's business as usual, and everything is beautiful. Oh, and the front page is reserved for sob human interest stories, preferably featuring beautiful expats or some celebrity who has a distant connection to Malaysia.

Then there is the Malaysia that is portrayed by the Internet media. That Malaysia is laden with corruption, with every day bringing a brand new allegation about what the Minister's family did with the 250 million ringgit soft loan they were given. That Malaysia has a police force that thinks Twitter and Facebook are threats to national security. The headlines of the online media regularly scream scandal, misappropriation, lack of propriety or at its basest, pure stupidity on the part of politicians and government--the kind that gets people messaging each other on BlackBerry or WhatsApp going "Did you read about THAT?".

The vast gulf of difference between how the online media is covering national issues and how the mainstream media is covering the non-issues (I, too, love those human interest stories ala Australian reunited with Malaysian Amah. But the front page? Seriously? Was nothing bleeding that could lead?), reflects the digital divide in its truest sense. It is not about those who are digitally connected and those who are not--it is about how reality is becoming distorted despite the fact that we are all living in the same country.

Because the gulf between the "real" media (I think that's what they LIKE to think of themselves, vs. the online media, who presumably are often viewed as media cowboys in the true tradition of Lord Wellington's mantra--publish and be damned) and the Internet media is so vast, the relevance, indeed, if one were to be nasty, point of existence, of the so called real media is to me, seriously in question. What is the point in having a national newspaper that has no interest in covering local issues of relevance to Malaysians in a substantive way? What is the point in having a newspaper filled with journalists who appear to have absolutely no interest in doing any form of investigative journalism whatsoever? Sure these publications make money, which is again rather perverse when you consider the fact that in the UK, money-making newspapers are the ones that don't just have semi-nude girls on page three, but regularly runs stories that make the royal family and politicians turn red or resign.

(Ironically, when the Malaysian newspapers went to town with the sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim, lurid details galore, I have my doubts it actually sent sales soaring.)

So at this point, no doubt someone will point out: Hey, these media outlets are all owned or quasi-owned by the government of the day in some way. What do you expect?

Well, I expect my newspapers to at least make an attempt to look like they care about Malaysian society and the issues of the day that affect Malaysians in a real way. I don't expect them to turn into the Guardian or the South China Morning Post overnight, but I certainly expect some kind of attempt at least to look like they give two hoots about what the public thinks. I don't expect the Star or the New Straits Times to suddenly start exposing the misdeeds of government politicians BUT at least, make a feigned attempt to cover the story in some way. Relegating a scandal involving 250 million taxpayer dollars to page 18 is not an attempt to cover the story. It is a blatant attempt to ignore it or pretend it does not exist by throwing it in together with the stories about break-ins or mediums conning unsuspecting women.

Similarly, I don't expect The Star or the New Straits Times to champion the cancellation of the Temporary Operating License (TOL) granted to Lynas' LAMP plant in Kuantan. But the least they could do is publish some serious scientific facts in any attempt to educate the public about the issue (in other words, BE NEUTRAL, GIVE FACTS, LET THE PUBLIC CONCLUDE FOR THEMSELVES), rather than just toeing the line in the most lame way possible, which is, to engage in Ostrich syndrome--stuff your head in the sand, hum Negaraku and hope that some global disaster event occurs tomorrow somewhere else so you can put that on the front page.

In the same vein, I expect the Star to regularly feature "government mouthpiece" material being passed off as opinion or analysis. But is it too much to ask that the propaganda at least be not so thinly veiled and ill-disguised? When attempting to write an analysis piece, try to make it NOT sound quite so toadying? Given that these journalists are being paid money to write, they could at least, make a decent effort of it.

I don't expect the mainstream media to actually magically turn into paragons of journalistic virtue or the political paparazzi overnight. Far from it. All I am asking is that they try not to utterly disgrace themselves by ignoring in entirety significant stories that are relevant to Malaysians and deploy a little skill when it comes to promoting their political masters. Even if I don't agree with the opinion or analysis, at least I can admire the strategy, the effort, the skill and the ingenuity that went into disguising the unpalatable.

View the original article here

Source From CNET

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